My Molotov Christmas In Brooklyn
When my boyfriend asked me why I was hesitant about coming to spend Christmas with his family in Brooklyn this year, I knew I’d have to tell him what happened fourteen years ago.
On December 24th, 2001 I heard five loud bangs. I was only 10, but I knew what gunshots sounded like. It wasn’t an uncommon sound in my neighborhood. My neighbor’s body hit the cold concrete with a loud thud. Everyone scattered, including the man behind the gun, my Uncle Russ.
The shooting happened a block away from my family’s apartment in Flatbush on Clarendon and East 23rd street. My mother heard the noise and ran to the window to catch my Uncle Russ’s burgundy Navigator racing off. She tried to call his cell phone but he wouldn’t pick up. Just a couple minutes later, people came rushing to our home, yelling that my Uncle Russ was hit. In the middle of the panic, screaming and yelling could be heard outside. When my mother went to the fire escape to see who it was, she realized it was the police and our neighbor, who was screaming, “Your brother killed my boyfriend! Your brother killed my boyfriend!” My mother came back inside and locked the door. Uncle Russ was the only man in my mother’s life. Now that he was gone, she felt no longer protected.
My uncle was like a father to me because my father wasn’t around. I was a tomboy growing up and Russ was only 14 years older than me so I used to watch every move he made. I loved the way he dressed. He wore a lot of Ralph Lauren. I wouldn’t dare put Ralph Lauren on the list for school clothes because it was too expensive. But when I was old enough to buy my own clothes I always wore Ralph Lauren. He was so full of knowledge, I use to listen to every word he said even if it was only about video games. I use to cry when I couldn’t beat a level in Mortal Kombat. He use to always yell at me to calm down and focus. With all of the chaos that my mother and I are in now I can hear his voice in my head telling me to “calm down and focus”.
“We have to get out of Brooklyn right now,” Mom explained, panic crawling over her face. She realized we were in danger because our neighbor’s boyfriend Jamar was a well-respected member of the Crips gang and a known crack-dealer. He was loved, and now his followers were seeking revenge on the man who killed him. But no one knew where my Uncle Russ was, not even us. And what was the quickest way to get to a man? His family.
We packed suitcases and fled to my grandmother’s house upstate. My grandmother, who we called Nan, played her “A Motown Christmas” CD while my sister and brother opened up their presents. It felt like a normal holiday, but I could tell that my mother and grandmother’s minds were somewhere else.
Two days later, Nan and my mom were cooking in the kitchen while my siblings and I watched The Nightmare before Christmas in the living room. I overheard Nan telling my mother everything was safe and that we could return home. A ringing phone disrupted the conversation. Ten seconds later a cry escaped my mother’s mouth. I ran into the kitchen to see her on the floor with tears racing down her face. She just kept repeating, “They burned down our house. They burned down our house.”
It was a family friend on the line, who was just happy we were alive. It turned out that a couple of gang members threw a Molotov cocktail through our apartment window, hoping that we would get caught in the blaze. None of us could understand who had the heart to try to kill a woman and her children out of pure vengeance.
Two days later, the police came to my grandmother’s house and explained that we should stay out of Flatbush for a long time. If we doubted that our hometown was no longer safe, a phone call my grandmother got a week later confirmed our worst suspicions. “We know your license plate is PEPPER1. We can’t find your son, so we’re going to get him at your funeral,” said the anonymous caller. My family left Brooklyn behind.
After a year, life started to seem normal again. We moved into a nice townhouse near my grandmother’s place upstate with the help from a program in the emergency housing shelter. Uncle Russ was still on the run. He called every now and then to let us know he was alive, still not disclosing his location. My heart was still in my hometown though I knew it wasn’t safe to go back.
By the time I was 15 and about to get my driver’s license, all I could think about was driving down Flatbush Avenue, and stopping in Golden Krust. I use to love walking down the street and hearing cars pass by, blasting the latest Jay-Z or Beenie Man. Most of all I missed the mango stands. Our new neighborhood didn’t have any of that. It didn’t even have sidewalks. It only had roads with no streetlights, deer, and an abundance of trees.
My senior year of high school, I didn’t lie to my grandmother when I told her I was going to my friend Kadeem’s house. I just didn’t tell her where he lived. It was such a rush to return to my old stomping grounds. But I was nervous every second. What happened if someone recognized me? I made sure to make it a short visit.
We found out from the community that the one who set our home on fire was a man by the name of Tip-Toe. He and my mother grew up together. The cops couldn’t prove it was him, so he went free. Months later he was arrested on a drug charge.
It was finally okay to go visit. My Mom was going too. She didn’t stay long, just for a day, but the fact that we felt comfortable in our old community was reassuring.
The older I got the less I spoke to my Uncle Russ. Eventually I was old enough to hear stories of the reason the fight between my uncle and our neighbor happened. My uncle’s girlfriend, Keke, instigated the whole thing, putting my Uncle in danger.
Russ and Jamar went to a nightclub together one night. After the club, my uncle drove Jamar back to his house. While they were in the car, Russ’s baby mother kept calling him because his daughter had a high fever. The next time Jamar saw Keke he told her about the phone call, leaving out the reason she was actually calling. Keke was furious. So she called Russ, yelling and crying, and he was confused because it was an innocent call. He then retaliated and told Keke about how Jamar was cheating on Keke’s sister. And Keke called Jamar to tell him what Russ had told her. The back and forth continued, with Keke telling each of them what the other one is saying.
Keke was always trouble and my family constantly warned him about her. But he never listened. He picked her over us and I could never forgive him for that. My hero who I looked up to when I was older was not my hero anymore. I wanted to be nothing like him. He was the cause of all of my family’s pain. He ran away and made his family suffer for what he did. I thought he was filled with knowledge but I realized he wasn’t as smart at all. My Uncle was the cause of my first heartbreak.
When I told my boyfriend Ejike about what happened to my family, he was shocked. Although we shared the same hometown he was on the other side, in Canarsie, where there was less crime. Ejike grew up where gangs and violence weren’t on everyone’s mind every second. He’s now an elementary school teacher, the complete opposite of my uncle. I feel safe spending time with a man without worrying he’ll end up in jail or bring violence into my life again.
The FBI found Uncle Russ in Ohio with his girlfriend, two years after the shooting. My cousin told me he was dropping them off at daycare, “and a million men jumped out of cars and took my dad.” Uncle Russ was sentenced to 25 to life. I don’t write him and I don’t visit him. I haven’t spoken to him in years. He hasn’t tried to reach out to me either. He never even told me that he’s sorry.
In 2013, my mother ran into Tip Toe at a mutual friend’s funeral. He approached her and said they needed to talk. My mother thought she was going to get an apology but instead he said, “I had to do what I had to do.” It wasn’t quite the closure she expected, but the conversation let us know our lives were no longer in danger.
Fourteen years have passed but my family still doesn’t celebrate the holidays in the city. That’s about to change for me because I told Ejike that I’d spend Christmas with his family this year. It will be my first yuletide in my hometown since 2001. Driving down familiar roads and seeing familiar stores will be hard for me because the reason I left is still fresh in my mind. But I will overcome the pain to spend Christmas in my favorite place with my new favorite man.
Darnycya Smith is an artsy 24 year old from Brooklyn, NY. She’s currently studying creative writing and journalism at The New School in New York City. She loves to write and draw but her real love is her smart and energetic two year old son Trey. When she’s not running around after her son or creating art, she’s binge watching new shows on Netflix and listening to music. Tweet her at @CurlyCappuccino.